Sex and Spirituality In the Upanishads

Erotic Sculpture

by Jayaram V

In a plural society, it is important not to judge any people based solely on their literature, which was composed over a long time and which was known to a minority of scholars and upper caste educated people. The scriptures give you an indication, and you need a balanced perspective and nonjudgmental attitude to draw your conclusions knowing well that what you know is indicative but not absolute. Besides, any literature, religious or otherwise, does not necessarily reflect the conditions of the time in which they are composed. They may allude to the idealism or a reality in a particular context. Imagine if we have to judge present day Indians solely based upon the Indian films and television serials. Jayaram V

Note: This article contains sensitive information and may not be suitable for all ages.


In Hinduism, sexual intercourse is considered neither evil nor sinful nor dirty. Sex is divine, and the basis of creation and preservation. The manifested universe itself is a product of the union between the male and female parts of the Supreme Being, who is believed to be both male and female in one cosmic body. The Upanishads suggest that the pleasure arising from sexual union is a faint reflection of the blissful nature of the Supreme Self. His blissful state is considered to be billions of time more blissful than what human experience during their sexual union.

For a householder, fulfillment of sexual desire (kama) is one of the chief aims of human life. In ancient India even ascetic people were allowed to engage in sexual intercourse. Its essential purpose is procreation and continuation of human race. Therefore in ancient India women often took the assistance of men outside their marriage for procreation. Men considered it an obligatory duty to help them. Hindu sages practiced celibacy, but they were also householders with wives and children. Bharata, the progenitor of the Hindus was born in strange circumstances due to a sexual union between sage Viswamitra and Menaka, the celestial nymph in the court of Indra.

Thus, ancient Indian had a different view of sex. Men married more women. From the Arthashastra we know that men and women often engaged in sex outside their marriage for which the text prescribed punishments. The Vatsayana's Kamasutra suggests how sex was viewed as an aesthetic exercise rather than a dirty act. Hinduism does not ascribe sexual desires to the demons only. Gods, humans and demons all engage in it. However, they are driven by different desires and purposes according to their nature. The law books recognized the role of sex in regulating the worlds and people, but prescribed strict code of conduct to ensure that it did not lead to disorder, immorality, and degradation of castes and families.

It was only in the last few centuries, Christian and Islamic puritanism engulfed Hinduism and changed the attitude of people towards sex. Due to lack of knowledge, nowadays many Hindus think and act like Christians or Muslims in matters of sex and prefer to keep it under wraps. They also expect that all Hindu seers and saints should strictly remain celibate like the Christian monks, ignoring that in Hinduism sex is not a taboo for ascetics if their spiritual practice demands it or if they are requested to engage in it for procreation.

This is rather an unfortunate development and takes away the distinction of Hinduism from other religions as a religion that acknowledges the centrality of sex in the continuation of creation. It is the tradition where creation itself is symbolized in the Siva lingam as a continuous sexual union between Purusha and Prakriti. The Tantra tradition of Hinduism positively affirms that you cannot separate the body and the mind from your spirituality and to achieve liberation you must work through them.

Today's Hindus are unfamiliar with the beliefs associated with sex in Hinduism. For example, Acharya Rajneesh spoke openly against the puritanical attitude of Hindus towards sex and suggested that people should change their attitude towards it and consider it like any other act of survival such as eating or sleeping. He was vehemently criticized and ridiculed for his statements by many Indians. They did not know that he was voicing an ancient tradition that was long forgotten in the country due to the subjugation of India first by the Muslims and later the British, and due to the introduction of Christian education and Christian values in the schools as part of the secularization of native Indians.

The current sexual mores of the majority Hindus in India indicate the extent to which the country was influenced and transformed by the British rule and the values that were imported from the West. Traditionally, in Hinduism sex was a taboo only for certain categories of people. Foremost among them were students. They were expected to practice complete celibacy. Until they completed their education, they were not even allowed to look at women with lust, improperly touch them or misbehave with them, or wear any makeup or ornaments. Sex was also a taboo for those who took the oath of celibacy or who were expected to practice celibacy as part of a social custom or family tradition, as in case of widows. Sexual intercourse was also prohibited on certain days and during certain months to avoid the negative influence of planets upon the progeny and the parents. 

The Upanishads contain mostly statements of philosophical and spiritual truths. However,. interspersed between the statements of wisdom and ritual details are verses that contain sexually explicit information. Some of them even rival the verses from the Kamasutra. They reveal the sexual mores of the times in which they were composed and show no inhibition in stating the facts or describing the sexual organs. At least in the principal Upanishads, and especially in the oldest and largest of them, namely the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads, we do not find any negativity being associated with sexual acts. Sexual desire, like any other desire, may bind the souls to the mortal world, whereas sexual actions performed as one's duty towards God, gods, and ancestors, and for the purpose of procreation are considered obligatory. In them. we find three predominant themes associated with sexual intercourse. They are:

  1. Sexual intercourse as a religious duty and obligation
  2. Sexual intercourse as a ritual offering.
  3. Methods to facilitate or interrupt sexual conjugation

Sexual intercourse as a duty

The purpose of sexual intercourse is primarily duty (dharma), then pleasure (kama), and finally liberation (moksha). Through sexual intercourse householders are expected to produce children and fulfill their obligations towards their families, ancestors, gods, society, the world, and God himself. A man may depart from this world, but he continues to live through his son, who partakes his qualities, family name, identity, and knowledge. By bringing up his children, educating them, and helping them to settle in life, he ensures the continuity of his family, and the order and regularity of society and the world.

Sexual intercourse as a sacrifice

References to sexual intercourse as a sacrifice are found in the Chandogya Upanishad (5.8.1-2), and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.13 and 6.4.2-3). The sexual organs are compared to certain parts of the sacrifice, sexual intercourse itself is compared to Vajapeya sacrifice, semen is the oblation poured into the fire in the female sexual organ. From this sacrifice arises the fetus as the fruit of the sacrifice. The verses also suggest that men are supposed to know the sacrificial nature of sexual intercourse. Otherwise their merit of good deeds will go to the women. The purpose of a woman is to complete man and fill his one half. In the beginning Brahman was alone and desired to have company. Therefore, he doubled his size and divided himself into a man and a woman. Hence, the body of a man is considered only one half, like one of the two shells of a split pea (Br. 1.4.3). The space that is left empty is filled by the wife.

The importance of male sexual energy

The Upanishads reaffirm the Vedic beliefs regarding the nature of semen. In the rebirth of human beings, the semen plays a predominant role, while little is mentioned about the female eggs. In the male body the semen represents the highest form of energy. It source is the food. Food becomes semen after it circulates in the human body for several days. Therefore, loss of semen was considered the same as loss of energy, even more so if the person happened to be a celibate or an ascetic. The souls become part of the semen through food only. The path by which souls return to the earth and take birth is also well explained. They fall down to the earth through rains. From the earth they enter the bodies of plants and animals. When humans consume them, they become part of the semen in the male bodies. From there through sexual intercourse they enter the womb. No such importance was given to the eggs produced by women. Women were considered mere receptacles who played a passive role in the rebirth of the soul, acting as mere receptacles to receive semen and host the souls in their wombs until they were born.

Methods and mores to facilitate conjugal union

The sexual mores of the Vedic times are very different from those of today in Hinduism. In the earlier days of Vedic civilization, both polygamy and polyandry were practiced. People engaged in different types of marriages, both lawful and unlawful. Men enjoyed many social and sexual privileges, besides practicing polygamy. They bought and sold slave women and engaged in sexual relationships with women outside their marriage.

The Hindu law books recognize intercaste marriages between men of upper castes and women of lower castes and vice versa, with some stipulations and punitive undertones. Women also seems to have enjoyed some freedom, if they were not married to men of higher castes or owned by householder as slaves. For example, Satyakama Jabala's mother did not know his father's name since she worked as a maid in several households and did not know who exactly fathered him. From this it is clear that single motherhood is not a recent phenomenon.

The Upanishad contain verses (Br.6.4) that throw light upon the sexual mores of those times. They describe how men should approach women for intercourse, how to entice them or coerce them to engage in sex, how to make love, and how to caste spells. They also suggest remedies to facilitate or prevent impregnation, or to ensure the birth of a son with desired qualities and completion. One particular verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains information about a secret ritual which an aggrieved husband can perform against his wife's secret lover to take away his potency and merit, and his good fortune.

The following are the most important verses found in the principal Upanishad about sexual intercourse. Wherever necessary, we have added explanatory notes.

Verses related to sexual intercourse from the Upanishads

Symbolism of Vamadeva Saman

The following verses (Ch. 2.13.1-1) compare the Chanting of Vamadeva Saman to sexual intercourse and suggest that he who knows the Saman should not refuse to have sex with any woman who desires progeny.

1. He invites, that is the syllable HIM; he proposes, that is the Prastava; he lies down along with the woman, that is the Udgitha; he lies upon the woman, that is the Pratihara; time goes by, it comes to an end and he enters supreme (blissful) state, that is Nidhana. This is Vamadeva Saman woven in the coitus.

2. He who thus knows this Vamadeva woven in the coitus, becomes able for coitus, procreates from coitus to coitus, lives his full life, lives gloriously, attains greatness with progeny and cattle, and earns a great name for himself. He (who sings the Vamadeva Saman) should not avoid any woman (who desires coitus for the sake of procreation). That is the rule.

The woman as the sacrificial fire

The following verses (Ch 5.8.1-2) from the same compare a woman's bodily parts to a sacrifice and how a fetus is born from that sacrifice.

1. "The woman, O Gautama, is verily the sacrificial fire; of that the middle part is the fuel, the hair is the smoke, the vagina is the flame, penetration is the coals and the pleasure the sparks.

2. "In that fire, the gods pour semen as their libation. From this libation arises the fetus."

An almost identical verse is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.13).

The woman, O Gautama, is fire. Her sexual organ itself is the fuel. The hairs are its smoke, the womb its flame, what is placed inside the coals, and the sensations of pleasure its sparks. In this fire, the gods pour semen as the oblation. Out of that offering manifests a person. He lives for the span of his life.

Single parenting

This verse (Ch 4.4.2) illustrates that women in Vedic society had sexual freedom and often lived alone with their children and without a husband. Although they might have faced some social disabilities, they were not condemned by society, and their children had access to higher education.

She said to him: "My child, I do not know what your family name is. In my youthful days, when I moved about as a maid servant (among many families) then I got you. Hence, I do not know your family name. My name is Jabala and your name is Satyakama. You may therefore call yourself Satyakama Jabala. "

Why a woman was created

The following verses (Br.1.4.3) suggest that Prajapati created a woman as a companion because he did not enjoy being alone.

He felt no joy at all. Therefore, a person who is lonely does not experience joy. He desired to have a companion. He became as big as a man and woman in close embrace. He divided himself (his body) into two. From that manifested a husband and a wife. Hence, Yajnavalkya used to say, “This body is but one half of oneself, like one of the two shells of a split pea.” Therefore, this space is filled by the wife. He became united with her. From that human beings were born.

Sexual intercourse as a sacrifice

These verses (Br.6.4.2-3) describe sexual intercourse as a sacrifice

1. Prajapati contemplated, "Let me create a place where he can establish himself. So he created a woman. He placed her sexual organ on the lower side. Therefore one should perform service to a woman on the lower side. He stretched out for himself that which projects, verily, with pleasure. With that he impregnated her.

2. Her sexual organ is the sacrificial pit, the hair around it the grass, skin the soma press, the labia are the kindling fire in the middle. Truly, the world of him who practices intercourse knowing this is as good as that of he who performs Vajapeya sacrifice. He, who practices inter-course knowing it secures for himself the merit of the woman's good deeds, while he who indulges in the intercourse without knowing it passes on the merit of his good deeds to the women.

Remedial ritual for the loss of semen

In Vedic society men were supposed to preserve their semen, since it carried souls who were awaiting to be born. The following verse (Br6.4.4-5) suggests the procedure to be followed when there is a loss of semen.

If one discharges semen, a little or a lot, awake or asleep… One should touch it and utter this mantra, “Whatever semen that has fallen on the earth, whatever has gone into the plants or into the water, I reclaim it; let my virility, my vigor, my passion, come to me again, luster and glow come to me again. Let the fire and the altar return to their usual place.) (Saying thus) he should lift the semen with his hands and rub it in between his breasts or eyebrows.

How to approach a woman for sexual intercourse

Although, semen plays an important role in the rebirth of souls, women were still considered important for their conception. Hence, men had to seek their cooperation to facilitate the rebirth. The following verses (Br. 6.4.6-8) describes how to engage a woman and approach her for sexual intercourse. Consensual sex was the norm. However, it appears that men had the right to use force if the women refused to cooperate

1. Now, if he happens to see his own reflection in water, he should recite the hymn, "Mine is the luster of the semen, fame, wealth, and the result of good works." There, indeed, is loveliness in women when they discard the impure clothes (worn during menstruation). Therefore, when she has removed her impure clothes and glowing with vigor, he should approach her and make a proposal.

2· If she is not willing to grant his desire, he should buy her (gifts). If she is still unyielding, he should strike her with a stick or with the hand and overpower her, uttering the following mantra, "I take away your body vigor." Then she becomes weak without strength.

3. If she consents, he should say, "Through my semen I transmit my glory into you." Then the two glow with vigor.

How to make love

As evident from this verse (br. 6.4.9), when making love, men recited mantras to put a spell upon their partners and engage them in active sex. The primary purpose of it, however, was procreation.

If one desires to have sex with a woman thinking that she may enjoy love with him, inserting his member in her, pressing his mouth against her, caressing her lower part, he should recite, "You, who is born from every limb of mine, who is created from my heart, you are my body's essence. May she become infatuated with me as if she has been hit by a poisonous arrow."

Birth control

There were no birth control methods in the ancient world. Since men practiced polygamy, and had sex with several women including household servants and slave women, they had to ensure that their actions did not result in the birth of unwanted children. The following two verses (Br. 6.4.10-11) describe what men should do to facilitate fertility or prevent it.

1. Now, if he desires, "She should not become pregnant," after inserting his member into her, pressing his mouth against her, and inhaling and exhaling, he should say, "With my vigor and semen, I reclaim the semen from you.” Surely, then she will be without the seed.

2. Now, if he desires," May she become pregnant," after inserting his member into her, pressing his mouth against her, and inhaling and exhaling, he should say, “With my vigor and with my semen I deposit the semen in you.” Surely, then she will become pregnant.

How to harm a wife's lover

The The following verse (br.6.4.12) suggests how an aggrieved husband may destroy his wife's secret lover through a secret ritual.

If a man's wife has a lover and he wants to harm him out of hatred, he should put fire in an unbaked earthen vessel, spread arrows made of reed and kusa grass in an inverse order and offer the arrows, with their tips soaked in clarified butter, in the fire in an inverse order, saying, "You have been sacrificed in my fire, I take away your incoming breath, and your outgoing breath, you so and so. You have been sacrificed in my fire. I take away your sons and cattle, you so and so. You have been sacrificed in my fire. I take away your sacrifices and good deeds, you so and so. You have been sacrificed in my fire, I take away your hopes and expectations, you so and so." He, indeed, departs from this world without potency and without merit, whom a Brahmana who knows this curses. Therefore, one should not wish even to make fun of the wife of a person who recites the Vedas. Indeed, he who know this becomes supreme.

Rituals for the birth of a son

These verses (Br. 6.4.14-22 prescribe specific methods to produce children of specific color and abilities. It looks like fair color was not the only desired quality they sought among their children.

1. He who desires that a son should be born to him with fair complexion, who would study the Vedas and attain the full span of his life, should have rice cooked in milk, which he and his wife should eat with clarified butter. Then they would be able to give birth (to such a son).

2 He who desires that a son should be born to him with brown complexion, who would study the Vedas and attain the full span of his life, should have rice cooked in curd, which he and his wife should eat with clarified butter. Then they would be able to give birth (to such a son).

3. He who desires that a son should be born to him with dark complexion and red eyes, who would study the Vedas and attain the full span of his life, should have rice cooked in water, which he and his wife should eat with clarified butter. Then they would be able to give birth (to such a son).

4. He who desires that a daughter should be born to him, who would be a scholar and attain the full span of her life, should have rice cooked with sesame, which he and his wife should eat with clarified butter. Then they would be able to give birth (to her).

5. He who desires that a son should be born to him, who would be a scholar, who would frequent the congregations and speak delightful words and attain the full span of his life, should have rice cooked with the meat of a vigorous and young bull or an old bull, which he and his wife should eat with clarified butter. Then they would be able to give birth (to such a son).

6. Now, in the early morning, having prepared clarified butter for the sake of Sthalipaka rites, and poured Sthalipaka oblations again and again, saying, "To the fire, svaha; to Anumati, svaha, to the divine Savitr, the creator of truth, svaha." Having made the offering, he then eats (the remnants of the food). Having eaten, he then offers to his wife (whatever is left). Having washed his hands, he fills up the water vessel and sprinkles her thrice with the water, saying, "Arise Visvavasu and find out another young woman, who is a wife and lives with her husband."

7. Then, he embraces her saying, "I am breath, and you are speech; you are speech, and I am breath; I am Saman, and you are Rik; I am the heaven, and you are the earth; come, let us be together so that I can give you my semen and we may have a male child.

8. Then he spreads her thighs apart, saying, "Spread yourselves apart like heaven and earth.” After establishing his member in her, and pressing his mouth against her, he strokes her three times in the direction of her hair, saying, “Let Vishnu prepare your womb, let Tvastr create the forms, let Prajapati impregnate you, let Dhatr place the seed in your womb. O Sinivali, place the fetus, place the seed O broad plaited one. Place the fetus, O Asvins who are crowned with lotus wreaths.

9. The flame that the Asvins brought forth with the friction of the two golden sticks, such a germ I invoke as the fetus for you for delivery in the tenth month. Just as the earth has the germ of fire in its womb, just as the sky has the germ of rains and the wind has the germ of directions, so do I place the germ in you, so and so. When she is ready to deliver, he sprinkles her with water, saying, just as the wind stirs a pond from all sides, so may your fetus stir and come out with the outer membrane. This is the handiwork of Indra. Let him come forth, O Indra, with the baby and the afterbirth.

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Source: The English Translation of the verses in this essays are taken from the translations of the Upanishads by Jayaram V.